The set-up: Do you know the showbiz term "jumping the shark"? The phrase has gone viral ever since Fonzie (Henry Winkler) waterskied over a shark during the fifth season of the old hit sitcom Happy Days. It's a term that means a successful show has finally reached a point of desperation and will do anything to keep going, to keep relevant, to keep its ratings up. I thought of the Fonz during the Alley Theatre's surprisingly uneven production of Shakespeare's most sparkling comedy As You Like It.
The execution: Director Gregory Boyd gets awfully close to that shark during Act I with some steampunk design choices and overbearing sound effects, but treads enough water, like Michael Phelps waiting for race results, to pull back to give his magnificent cast room to work its wonderful magic. But then the dam breaks in Act II, and the sharks come flying. Evil Oliver, who has mended his ways when brother Orlando selflessly saves his life from a hungry lion, sets eyes on Rosalind's best friend Celia. The warm forest lighting suddenly goes all rosy, the unlikely couple freezes in love-at-first-sight posture, and the blasting sound of Mario Lanza's "Be My Love" engulfs the theater. It a cheap laugh, but Shakespeare spins. As You Like It has jumped the shark.
Up until that point, the play has been spinning neatly on its own. There's a nifty '70s, hippy vibe to it, akin to Peter Brooks' theater-shaking Midsummer with its trapezes and big white set. It's a very handsome production with Kevin Rigdon's great sweep of a back wall that rises like a castle's portcullis to reveal banks of stage lights for certain character entrances, and there's a silk curtain that's drawn across the front of the proscenium for lightning fast scene changes or crossovers.
There is no forest of Arden, the magic's conjured through Rui Rita's autumnal colors. It's all minimal and terribly imaginative, allowing us to fill in the blanks. To top it off, Tricia Barsamian's fabulous costumes are a special sort of magic: severe black and white Elizabethan gowns and pantaloons for Frederick's corrupt court, and russet and homespun for the transformed folks in the forest.
Pure, sweet Orlando (Chris Hutchison) has been deprived of his birthright by evil brother Oliver (John Feltch), just as Duke Ferdinand (Todd Waite) has been usurped by his evil brother Frederick (Todd Waite). The good guys and their courtiers flee into the forest to escape, soon followed by Rosalind (Elizabeth Bunch) and cousin Celia (Emily Trask). To safeguard their persons, Rosalind dresses in male drag, all the better to get to know Orlando whom she loves ever since he bested the duke's wrestler. In the guise of boy Ganymede, she befriends Orlando and instructs him in the ways of love. The forest, like every forest in Shakespeare, changes everyone, and there are multiple happy endings at the spirited conclusion.
Shakespeare fills his forest with the sunniest of situations, quick silver wit, and some of his most indelible creations. First among equals is Rosalind: feisty, forthright, and intelligent. Good and true, there is no one like her in all the canon, Shakespeare's most accomplished female. Giving the performance of her career, Bunch is ideal, radiant as Rosalind in the early court scenes, then tomboyish and ever so sprightly as Ganymede. Even when she loses her heart, she's always in control, and nobody can top her quips. She's the smartest person in the woods. As Bunch jumps over a bale of sheep's wool and corkscrews to the ground, she leaps up again to languish against it in love, then shouts out her joy and spins around with Valley Girl accent. How could anyone not fall in love with her?
For all his family tribulations, lovesick Orlando is big and goofy, kindhearted and sweet, and Hutchison brings out all of his own innate charm to woo us. He's already won Rosalind's heart by his looks and gentle nature, but she must test him to make sure he's worthy. Oh, Hutchison's worthy, all right. He's got us in the palm of his big paw right from his comic entrance, when he bursts through the stage floor, scruffy and dirty from the manual labor his brother Oliver has forced upon him. His non-love scene love scene with genderbender Ganymede is resplendently erotic and wistfully comic.
The ensemble cast is fine-tuned. James Black, as melancholic Jacques, broods impressively through As You Like It's most famous passage, his Seven Ages of Man speech, which begins, "All the world's a stage," and ends with the most nihilistic view of old age, "...sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything." As he sits on that wool bale, the forest light dims, and Black's resonant baritone rings through the theater. There's not a sound to be heard. Superb.
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Todd Waite, as villain Frederick, hams it up like Everett Sloane in Lady From Shanghai, a malevolent spider scuttling on two canes, gleefully torturing courtiers. Emily Trask, as Rosalind's faithful confidant Celia, is a clear-eyed beauty, tromping through the forest in impossibly high heels. Jeffrey Bean, as snobby Touchstone, gives the motley fool a nimble vaudevillian gloss; Jay Sullivan, as gleefully innocent shepherd Silvius,with corn husk hair and Hee Haw attitude, is entirely love smitten with Melissa Pritchett's ripe Phebe, who's now fallen for Ganymede instead. David Rainey, with billy goat beard, gruffs and puffs as the duke's wrestler, then swiftly switches into rural contentment as shepherd Corin in Act II. John Feltch, as snarly, mustache-twirling Oliver, softens considerably when saved by Orlando, then goes all gooey eyed when he spies Celia. Nicole Rodenburg, as simple country girl Audrey seduced by big-city Touchstone, is a pastoral gal hot-to-trot. And veteran Charles Crohn, as Orlando's faithful retainer Adam - a role Shakespeare played at the Globe - brings decades of technique and audience best wishes to his loving old man.
Shakespeare fills As You Like It with more songs than any other play, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's hootenanny melodies and Orlando's little love ballad to Rosalind bespeak the '70s folk mood and genial counterculture attitude.
The verdict: If Boyd would trust Shakespeare more and rely less on empty theater effects, we'd like this more. As it is, there's Bunch and Hutchison to love, though. They are perfect, just as we like it.
As You Like It continues hrough February 22 at the Alley Theatre at the University of Houston, Wortham Theatre, Entrance 16 off Cullen Boulevard. Purchase tickets online at www.alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $26-$99.